The un­ex­pected lessons of a point­less protest

Toronto Star - - NEWS - Rosie DiManno

Be quiet.

How an­noy­ing that women, and the men who pur­port to sup­port them, would choose Twit­ter si­lence as an ex­pres­sion of de­fi­ance.

Cut­ting off their voice to spite their noses.

And I say that as a Twit­ter in­fi­del. A phe­nom­e­non that has pol­luted the en­vi­ron­ment, given vile ex­pres­sion to anony­mous trolls, short­handed com­mu­ni­ca­tion to the point of ca­cophonous Ba­bel, been ex­ploited by Rus­sian hack­ers to in­flu­ence an elec­tion out­come, and has even re­placed the min­i­mal cour­tesy of a con­do­lence note. Oh yeah, Ve­gas, see how much I feel your pain, by tap­ping out a sym­pa­thy blurt in 140 char­ac­ters or less, bob­bing along on the cur­rents of vac­u­ous dis­sem­i­na­tion.

I had to go back to into the files to re­mind my­self who in­vented this dig­i­tal plague: Twit­ter co-founder Jack Dorsey, back in the aught days when the plat­form was called twttr. Buried in the com­pany biog­ra­phy, an amus­ing de­tail about the once and again CEO — Dorsey was once briefly sus­pended from his own Twit­ter ac­count, which the em­bar­rassed com­pany blamed on an “in­ter­nal mis­take.”

There was no mis­take, ex­cept in re-think ret­ro­spect, when Twit­ter last week knocked ac­tress Rose McGowan off her tweet perch, locked out, sent to Twit­ter Coventry for fierce con­dem­na­tion of dis­graced movie mogul Har­vey We­in­stein, the al­leged se­rial sex­ual preda­tor and, as McGowan more than im­plied in one of her dis­patches, her rapist.

At first Twit­ter would not ex­plain why McGowan was tem­porar­ily muz­zled.

Only in the face of on­line howl­ing did the com­pany ex­plain that McGowan had vi­o­lated its terms of ser­vice be­cause a spe­cific mes­sage had in­cluded a per­sonal phone num­ber.

Some 6,000 tweets fly­ing out into the so­cial me­dia cy­ber­sphere per sec­ond — around 200 bil­lion tweets ev­ery year — and some­how McGowan’s rule-breaker had snagged a mon­i­tor’s at­ten­tion.

Her ac­count was hastily re­stored. But not be­fore #WomenBoy­cottTwit­ter had gone vi­ral, 24-hour notweet zone — it be­gan last Thurs­day at mid­night — ex­hort­ing users to go all mute. That call to mum the ram­parts ap­par­ently res­onated with the masses as celebri­ties tweeted — well of course they would tweet — their boy­cott align­ment. Alyssa Mi­lano, a TV ac­tress of mi­nor re­pute, said Fri­day the 13th “will be the first day in over 10 years that I won’t tweet. Join me.”

A decade of daily tweet­ing? Am I the only one who con­sid­ers that ad­dic­tive be­hav­iour? The protest had its pro­test­ers, re­sisters who pointed out that Twit­ter has long been fraught with toxic abuse by The Tweet Cham­ber, with scant crack­down and no drain­ing of the vul­gar­ian swamp by the com­pany. Some noted, cor­rectly, that there was no sim­i­lar out­rage mounted via boy­cott when mi­nor­ity women such as Ghost­busters ac­tress Les­lie Jones were bru­tally trashed on the plat­form.

But what was the point, re­ally, of #Women Boy­cott Twit­ter? For a protest to have trac­tion, there has to be an ob­jec­tive, an as­pir­ing. This was just a bloated whinge that in­con­ve­nienced no­body ex­cept the al­liance of so­cial me­dia re­mon­stra­tors and only fleet­ingly. Not ex­actly cut­ting off your tongue, like the Ellen Jame­sians in The World Ac­cord­ing to Garp.

Fic­tion, I know. But the si­lenc­ing of rape vic­tims is very real. Just as it ap­par­ently took decades to out the pow­er­ful We­in­stein, with celebri­ties now fall­ing all over them­selves — on Twit­ter, natch — to claim, gosh, they never knew, when clearly many did.

Twit­ter — or Non-Twit­ter­ing — was the ve­hi­cle adopted to push back. I don’t think any­body has been able to gauge the boy­cott’s im­pact. It seems not to have dam­aged the brand.

But Twit­ter is dam­ag­ing us. Not just as a con­duit for ma­li­cious elec­toral en­gi­neer­ing but, in my pro­fes­sion most es­pe­cially, as a slap­dash re­place­ment for re­portage.

Eleven years af­ter it launched, we still don’t know what we’re do­ing with Twit­ter and the mul­ti­ple pul­pits it spawned. The ha­ranguer-inchief — no Win­ston Churchill — is a crude, rab­ble-rous­ing Amer­i­can pres­i­dent who’s per­fected the art of mass dis­in­for­ma­tion. But tout le monde is in thrall to his early morn­ing squawks, a Wakey-Wakey Amer­ica pile of bilge.

Ev­ery­body has an opin­ion, ev­ery­body has some­thing to say. But now le­gions are lis­ten­ing, even to the white su­prem­a­cists and neo-Nazis who have mi­grated from the fringe — or the Dark Web — to the so­cial me­dia hub.

I don’t think jour­nal­ists should join them there.

We talk — by which I mean tweet — too much, in the process shed­ding all the core prin­ci­ples of neu­tral­ity and ob­jec­tiv­ity, as if the on­line per­sona can be sep­a­rated from the pro­fes­sional.

Colum­nists are paid to have opin­ions, of course — that’s the job — though ap­par­ently much of the pub­lic doesn’t grasp the dif­fer­ence. And it can be con­fus­ing. Colum­nists some­times func­tion as re­porters — it’s a multi-task­ing scram­ble — but re­porters should never be colum­nists.

I’ve never un­der­stood, for ex­am­ple, why news­pa­pers that are fairly vig­i­lant about keep­ing par­ti­san opin­ions and ed­i­to­ri­al­iz­ing out of their core news con­tent — although of­ten, not so sub­tly, re­fract­ing the news through an ide­o­log­i­cal prism — are per­fectly happy per­mit­ting re­porters to free­wheel spout on so­cial me­dia plat­forms.

It’s a kind of di­dac­tic schizophre­nia, with re­porters pretty much given carte blanche to snark and barb (and self-pro­mote) on their Twit­ter feeds.

The prac­tice has gone berserk. Be­cause it drives eye­balls. And there’s a le­git­i­mate cor­po­rate in­ter­est in en­gag­ing read­ers in a frac­tured me­dia mar­ket. And it doesn’t cost any­thing.

The New York Times, held up as a paragon of jour­nal­is­tic virtue, had taken dis­ap­prov­ing no­tice.

On Fri­day, the pa­per — with news­room so­cial me­dia ac­counts boast­ing “tens of mil­lion of fol­low­ers” — told staff to keep their opin­ions off Twit­ter, Face­book, In­sta­gram, etc.

Re­vis­it­ing and up­dat­ing cor­po­rate guide­lines, the Times stated what should be blind­ingly ob­vi­ous — par­ti­san con­tent jeop­ar­dizes cred­i­bil­ity. Cer­tainly it’s made it all too easy for Don­ald Trump to vil­ify big me­dia (apart from lap­dogs such as Fox and con­ser­va­tive blowhards on the ra­dio dial) as fonts of fak­ery and spi­der’s nests of news­room guer­ril­las.

Bot­tom line from the NYT: Knock it off.

So­cial me­dia can, and has, ex­panded news plat­forms (I do so hate that word), par­tic­u­larly by pro­vid­ing real-time up­dates via tweets and web­sites con­stantly turn­ing over con­tent. We’re not held hostage any longer by press-roll dead­lines. There’s never be­fore been so much in­for­ma­tion rolling out as it hap­pens.

“We can ef­fec­tively pull back the cur­tain and in­vite read­ers to wit­ness, and po­ten­tially con­trib­ute to, our re­port­ing,” the Times states. “But so­cial me­dia pre­sents po­ten­tial risks for the Times. If our jour­nal­ists are per­ceived as bi­ased or if they en­gage in ed­i­to­ri­al­iz­ing on so­cial me­dia, that can un­der­cut the cred­i­bil­ity of the en­tire news­room.” You think? Key points: “In so­cial me­dia posts, our jour­nal­ists must not ex­press par­ti­san opin­ions, pro­mote po­lit­i­cal views, en­dorse can­di­dates, make of­fen­sive com­ments or do any­thing else that un­der­cuts the Times’s jour­nal­is­tic rep­u­ta­tion.”

“Our jour­nal­ists should be es­pe­cially mind­ful of ap­pear­ing to take sides on is­sues that the Times is seek­ing to cover ob­jec­tively.”

Maybe we can, af­ter all, take a cue from #WomenBoy­cottTwit­ter.

Shaddup! Rosie DiManno usu­ally ap­pears Mon­day, Wed­nes­day, Fri­day and Satur­day.

KEVIN WIN­TER/GETTY IM­AGES FILE PHOTO

Twit­ter briefly locked out ac­tress Rose McGowan for her fierce crit­i­cism of Har­vey We­in­stein, spark­ing a #WomenBoy­cottTwit­ter protest.

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